I'm a Giants fan, so it was a tough season. When you follow football, especially when your team has a losing record, it's easy to forget that football is just a game. There's no disgrace in losing, but only in how the players treat each other on the field -- do I need to say the names Crabtree and Sherman? Sometimes the high point for me in watching the action on Sunday is when someone in the secondary of an opposing team says something that gets a smile from the guy he's just tackled. No trash talk, no taunting, no shoving; it's backyard football again. The action in the end zone, or lack of it, feels a little less disappointing when the guys on the field show that they respect and care about one another. (There might be lesson for Congress in that.)
I felt something just as encouraging, and far more moving, when I watched a CBS video of a middle school football team in Olivet, Michigan, just south of Lansing. As part of the CBS "On the Road" series, reporter Steve Hartman met with members of the school's football team, who described a special play they organized, secretly, behind the backs of their coaches. It was a bit of a risk, in terms of the score. But it was something they wanted to do for a rookie player who the team thought deserved a special play designed just for him, which required the ball carrier to take a knee just a yard short of a touchdown. In other words, they had an assured touchdown, but voluntarily downed the ball on the one yard line so that they could execute a special play for the benefit of one particular player. As one of the players told Hartman, "It was to make someone's day, to make someone's week, to make someone happy."
With one yard to go for a score, the team brought out a fellow student who was their friend but was never on the field: Keith Orr. He's a learning-disabled boy they'd all grown to love because he was so guileless, affectionate and helpful. In the report, you see Keith walking up from behind a couple of players and hugging them, and though they act a little embarrassed, they don't push him away. No bullies here, no ostracism because Orr was challenged. Just a group of caring kids who wanted Keith to have an experience available to only a few: making a touchdown. So they brought him out, in helmet and jersey, hiked the ball and handed it off to Keith, then formed a protective scrum around him to usher him across the goal line. Their draw play didn't provoke much of a defense: it appears the other team was in on the play as well. As one of the players said, "We wanted to prove to him that he meant a lot to us."
Some might say it's a silly gesture. Keith himself probably knew that the play was engineered for success. Yet what mattered, obviously, was that everyone had gone to so much trouble to show him they cared about him. The play itself was all that mattered, not the outcome. This sort of special play has been called before, in other places and at other games, and no doubt it will be called again. The more often, the better, as far as I'm concerned.
What struck me most profoundly in the video was the way one of the team members reacted as he simply told the reporter why doing something for Keith Orr mattered to him. Justice Miller, a wide receiver, said, "He's never been cool or popular, and he went from being a nobody to making everyone's day. I kind of went from being somebody who went from mostly caring about myself to wanting to make everyone's day." It might sound trite, but as you watch the boy say those words, he chokes up and tears fill his eyes. He was changed by his own generosity and caring, and he's grateful. He's as grateful to Keith as Keith must be grateful to him.
It makes you realize how doing something so compassionate might be an even bigger gift to the one doing it than for the one who's the object of all that affection. Now, if only those kids could organize a special play to get Eli Manning into the end zone a little more often...